It’s the “Open for Season” signs on ice cream joints and t-shirt shops. It’s the tossing of the football at the surf break, the running back on the boardwalk in bare feet to buy more drinks for everyone, the smell of coconut oil, the sound of a distant whistle of a guard in red shorts standing up, cupping his mouth, waving in some kid caught in the current.
It’s the first table full of tomatoes at Merryvale Market in the village, the pick-them-yourself marigolds still growing, but the corn is ready, and the cucumbers, and someone filled a cooler with ice and containers of crabmeat. This is where I shop; this is my local store.
It’s not simply that summer has arrived, with all the normal excitement of closed schools, warm sun, surf, gardening, hot hikes in the hills, canoeing, barbeques, and breakfast on the porch. Long days, days that run well into the evening hours so that someone might say, “Geez, it’s almost nine-thirty and the sky is still light.”
Those things, of course, but it’s more than that. I’ve spent more than half of my life in tourist towns, so that the non-summer months are punctuated by a sort of abandonment. As such, it is difficult to deny like most people I’ve known who lived and worked on the strip at a beach or in a drinking town with a bad boating problem as I do now, that it is relaxing come fall, when, as Jimmy Buffett points out, “They close down the tourist traps; the kids are back in school.” The “Coast is Clear” to say the least in those months, and some hotels and restaurants are boarded up, some simply open only on weekends, and others, well, they shut down completely and something new will rise from the sand come next summer.
Locals love that; the going back home part of tourism. I spent all of high school and my summers during college working on the strip in Virginia Beach, and I quickly became absorbed in the culture, where dressing up meant putting your shirt back on to enter a store.
But I like the arrival as well. I like the crowds, the murmuring of inlanders heading to the “coast” or the “shore” or the “beach.” Summer itself has an almost “opening” date quality about it, and those of us with depressive tendencies in the winter months come back to life, find that hope again that comes from radios playing on blankets and the sound of the surf, and the Cessna pulling an ad for some local restaurant, a boat hauling some paragliders, a few jet skis, a few kids playing frisbee, a few months of never quite getting the sand out of your hair or the salt off of your lips.
When I was a child, my family would pile in the car and head to Point Lookout, Long Island, where my grandparents had a house and I can recall like it was this morning walking single file down the center of Freeport Avenue, pushing my toes into the strip of soft tar which separated the two sides of the street, and headed around the dune fence onto the beach, and cousins would come and we’d play. Or later, my dearest friend Eddie and I would wade down the beach, knee deep, in the Great South Bay at Heckscher State Park, and we’d talk of boating across the reach to Fire Island, and further, down the coast to who knows where.
And my family moved to that who knows where, and that first summer when I couldn’t drive and didn’t know a soul, I biked that boardwalk every single day, and body surfed, and hauled strangers’ suitcases to their rooms, and made peace with heat and humidity.
There’s salt in my blood, but it only seems to season my life when the “Open for Season” signs appear.
And I know I love fall, and I like the fireplace ablaze come December, and I pull out oversized sweatshirts which anyway are more comfortable than semi-saltwater wet t-shirts with sand in the armpits.
I’m fifty years past that move south, forty years from working on the strip, thirty years from becoming a father, and there’s still something about some clerk hosing down a sidewalk in one of the eastern Long Island villages, or some high school kid rolling bikes to rent out near the boardwalk, or the guy selling snow cones, that is that constant in my life.
I’m a cancer, missing the Fourth of July by hours, so I really was, as has been written, “Born in the sign of water.” And it really is there that I’m at my best.